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Beween Women & Men
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

Walking into the empty sanctuary of his synagogue, a rabbi was suddenly possessed by a wave of mystical rapture, and threw himself onto the ground before the Ark proclaiming, "Lord, I'm Nothing!"

Seeing the rabbi in such a state, the cantor felt profoundly moved by similar emotions. He too, threw himself down in front of the Ark, proclaiming, "Lord, I'm Nothing!"

Then, way in the back of the synagogue, the janitor threw himself to the ground, and he too shouted, "Lord, "I'm Nothing."

Whereupon, the rabbi turned to the cantor and whispered, "Look who thinks he's Nothing!"

Aunts and Nephews

"Amram took Jochebed his aunt as a wife, and she bore him Aaron and Moses." This is the story recorded in this week's Torah portion (1).

Amram, this means, married his father's sister. Both Amram's father (Kehoth) and his wife (Jochebed) were daughters of Levi, the third son of the Jacob-Leah dynasty (2).

The marriage of an aunt and a nephew would, in time, become prohibited for the Jewish people and would be defined in the Bible as an inappropriate and un-G-dly union (3). An uncle may marry his niece (4), but an aunt cannot marry her nephew.

So why would Amram and Jochebed, two of the great people of Israel at the time (5), enter into a relationship that would later become forbidden for eternity for all of their offspring? True, during that time, prior to the giving of the Torah, this type of marriage was not "illegal." Still, Amram and Jochebed were aware that that their grandparents observed the Commandments even before they were officially presented to the people of Israel and they were aware that this relationship would become forbidden (6). Why, then, would they subject themselves to a blemished relationship (7)?

The enigma deepens considering the fact that it was this marriage that gave rise to little Moses, the messenger who would transmit G-d's law to the world, including the instruction against marrying one's aunt. Yet Moses himself is born precisely from such a relationship (8)!

Give and take

To understand this, we must first address the reason the Torah permits the marriage of an uncle with his niece while prohibiting the union of an aunt with her nephew.

One of the explanations behind this law has to do with some of the physical, psychological and mystical differences between the masculine and feminine genders.

Jewish mysticism teaches that a woman's uniqueness lies in her ability to accept and internalize, while a man's fulfillment lies in his ability to project and bestow (9).

This is expressed not only in the physical structures of their bodies and in the nature of their physical union, where the man protrudes and projects while the woman accepts and internalizes, but also in their psychological and spiritual structures as well.

One of the most fulfilling experiences for many a woman is to accept and absorb another person's emotions. Women, more then men, naturally cherish the experience of a genuine relationship, creating space for the other in their lives (10). While men often deceive themselves that they are complete in-and-of themselves, many a woman needs no more then a moment's call to become fully emotionally present to embrace the loving or aching heart of another human being.

The Kabbalah teaches that a man's primary satisfaction lies in his power to give, to bestow and to project, while a women experiences deep joy and serenity in her ability to be present and take it in. Man often feels the urge to change a situation and rectify a problem, while women see the experience of listening, accepting and identifying as an end in-and-of itself.

This does not mean to say that a woman does not cherish the opportunity to influence, give and transform. Yet women often accomplish these objectives by internalizing rather then by bestowing; through silence more than through noise; by being rather then by projecting.

The Kabbalah explains that the souls of most men originate within G-d as a creator, while the souls of most women stem from G-d as an essential being (11). For man to feel fulfilled he must create, transform, rectify; for woman to be fulfilled she must be.

Respecting the difference

The solution to this conflict of nature lies not in denying that there is a difference, but rather in each party knowing that there is a difference, and respecting the space and individual nature of the other person.

This, then, is the deeper, mystical reason for the Torah's prohibition against the marriage of an aunt with her nephew.

A marriage between an aunt and a nephew, which would by nature and instinct place the husband in the role of recipient and his wife in the position of the projector and giver, may hinder the full expression of both the wife and her husband. A man must be allowed to project and give, while a woman must be allowed to be present in order to accept and internalize.

How to become a teacher

This is true about most marriages. Yet our teacher Moses needed to come from
a very different type of relationship -- a relationship in which the recipient (represented by the woman) was the giver (the aunt), and the projector (represented by the man) was the recipient (the nephew).


Because Moses was chosen to become the "Man of G-d (12)," the messenger who
would, for the first time in human history, share with the Jewish people and the world the Divine perspective on life, the G-dly blueprint for life embodied by the Torah. Moses served as the ultimate teacher, mentor and leader, sharing the eternal truths of morality with an otherwise directionless universe, giving human history the dignity of having a moral and Divine purpose.

Now, in Moses' transmission of Torah from G-d to the Jewish people, a fundamental change was required: The "woman" needed to assume the role of leadership and seniority over the "man." The "woman" needed to be the aunt, and the "man" the nephew.

The prerequisite for becoming a conduit for Torah and Divine wisdom lies not in one's ability to project and give, but rather in one's power to accept, receive. A rabbi who sees his primary role as a teacher rather then a student -- a student of truth and a recipient of ideas that transcend him -- is not qualified as a rabbi.

If I wish to be a teacher of Torah, I must acknowledge that I do not own this wisdom. I am merely a humble recipient who craves to learn from everybody and from everything the truths of life, of G-d, of justice.

Moses, the ultimate teacher and leader of all time, needed to be born from a marriage in which the recipient reigned supreme (13).


1) Exodus 16:20.
2) Rashi ibid.
3) Leviticus 18:12-14.
4) Such was the case, for example, with Mordechai and Esther. Esther was Mordechai's niece.
5) The Talmud states (Soteh 12a) that Amram was the Gadol Hador, the spiritual leader of the generation.
6) Talmud Yuma 28b; Kedushin 82a.
7) A similar question is asked concerning Jacob who married two sisters, a union that would become forbidden in the Torah, despite the fact that it is clear from the Bible that our Patriarchs observed the Mitzvos even before they were officially given to the Jewish people. Much ink has been poured to find a resolution to this enigma. (See Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 pp. 141-149 and many references noted there.)
8) The question is increased many fold considering the fact that according to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer in Talmud Sanhedrin p. 58a this marriage may have been forbidden even before the Torah was given to gentiles as well (Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 p. 43 and references noted there).
9) This is a central doctrine in the literature of Kabbalistic and Chassidic thought. The masculine is defined as the "Mahpiah," while the feminine as the "Mekabal."
10) The Talmud, written around 1,700 years ago, states that women instinctively feel an inner void that compels them to seek a relationship that fills that emptiness (Kedushin 41a).
11) In the terminology of Kabbalah: Masculine souls originate in Za, while feminine souls originate in Malchus (see Maamar Lecah Dodi 5714 and references noted there).
12) Psalms 90:1.
13) This essay is based on Maor V'shemesh Parshas Veira. The author, Rabbi Klonemus Kalman Halevi Epstein, was born circa 1751. He was one of the great disciples of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, a pupil of the Maggid Mezrich, student of the Baal Shem Tov. He also studied at the feet of Rabbi Mendel of Remenov and the Seer of Lublin.   [There is a Chassidic tradition in the name of the Seer of Lublin that his soul was the soul of the High Priest, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Chartum.]  Rabbi Klonemus Kalman passed away at the age of 72, in 1823.
   In his Chassidic work on the Torah, Maor V'shemesh, he transcribed many ideas that he heard from his saintly teachers as well as ideas he developed on his own. The idea discussed in this essay, he quotes in the name "of a great man, one of the Tzaddikim of our time" (Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 4 p. 1090 discussing a similar expression in Maor V'shemesh Remzei Bein Hametzarim).

My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance, and to Chaim schild, a chemist from Monsey, NY, for pointing me to this idea of the Maor V'shemesh.



Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

With all due respect, I am continually troubled by even the most learned men telling women what we must do (or “be”) to be fulfilled.

As, baruch hashem, a happily married mother of four, I must say that this “being” certainly leaves me in need of a good menuchah by Friday night. And if all I did was “be,” I would “be” a failure. My work both inside and outside the home is constantly challenging; to do it properly requires continual response, rethinking, and resourcefulness. It means planning ahead. It means taking charge. Whether a woman is into real estate (considering a field and buying it?), meeting her payroll (allotting a portion to her maids?), bringing her goods to market, learning, teaching, writing, tending a garden, cleaning a house, looking after the needs of patient, arguing a case in court, or looking after the more immediate needs of her family or those of the greater community, she is striving, projecting, inventing. If I have taught (bestowed) nothing to my husband and children, I have failed.  The well-being of my family and friends is of paramount importance; having influence on that well-being requires more of me than this passive absorption that seems to be described below. Forgive me if I misunderstand, but if my fulfillment is to come entirely as described, my failure is inevitable. And, while I’m as fallible as the next human being, I don’t particularly feel like a failure.  

I don’t mean in any way to denigrate the importance of empathy, or of compassion, or, for example, of active listening,. Was it Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, zt’l, who said that the majority of errors in decisions of halakah result not from a lack of knowledge of halakah, but a lack of knowledge or the facts? Such errors may well result from a failure to listen properly, from determining what is to be decided before being aware of all dimensions of an issue. I’m not suggesting that a decisor should let emotions cloud a decision; I am suggesting that fully absorbing—being fully present to absorb--the import of a given situation is essential to good decision making, to the carrying out of justice. If only women are capable of this, we are in serious trouble indeed.

I also mean no disrespect to the mystics to whom you refer; however, I believe one must be careful when taking formulas to extremes. Human beings are more complex than figures in parables. Assigning such a limited definition to an individual is dangerous and, I am certain, has led to much grief. It is the kind of thinking that, when taken to extremes as has been the case in some parts of the world, suggests that a woman is best off in a burqa, best off in purda, because (for her own good, of course!) she must be protected from all that “male” striving.

Again, this is not directed with disrespect or anger, but with concern. Your messages appear in our home regularly; I therefore do not feel overly bold to respond.

B. M. 

Posted on January 26, 2006
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